- Trouble in Paradise:The Picturesque Fictions of Irving and His Successors
But a moment’s thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease. A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see the picture.—G. K. Chesterton
Once a serialized page-turner, Washington Irving’s The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20) still endures, if rather tacitly, in the American canon—the first of many “literary” travel books to focalize national character through an international lens. Less often recognized, but equally important to the collection’s cultural influence, is how it broke from certain domestic attitudes toward England. As Alfred Bendixen observes, U.S. travel literature in Irving’s time, like the sketches of Royall Tyler and James Kirk Paulding, typically ironized all aspects of English life, thereby paying homage to America’s pristine natural landscape and superior republican government.1 While similar patriotic fervor exists in the Sketch-Book (most notably throughout the brief essay “English Writers on America”), Irving seldom lingers on questions of national identity, praises neither side of the Atlantic unreservedly, and always gravitates back to broader formal and aesthetic questions. A cosmopolite writer before all else, Crayon spends much of his first entry, “The [End Page 1] Author’s Account of Himself,” describing how he gathered and arranged the sketches that follow: “I have wandered through different countries, and witnessed many of the shifting scenes of life. I cannot say that I have studied them with the eye of a philosopher; but rather with the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print-shop to another; caught, sometimes, by the delineations of beauty, sometimes by the distortions of character, and sometimes by the loveliness of landscape.”2
Today’s readers may find themselves puzzled by this account, which not only conflates life and art but also makes a passive spectator of the artist. Where we might prefer to imagine that Crayon, as fictionalized author, carefully distils the constant flood of experience into so many fictional scenes, Crayon himself asserts that reality naturally presents such “shifting scenes,” self-contained and readily available to the wandering witness. His “print-shop” metaphor, in which the author does not produce prints but strolls admiringly between them, amplifies this vision of art as prepackaged and thoroughly consumable. By representing both nature (“landscape”) and humanity (“distortions of character”) as artwork, Crayon suggests that such fixtures of life possess a completeness quite independent of the writer’s efforts to capture them.
The sketch’s gesture to naturally occurring art, coupled with the choice of prints as a vehicle, also recalls William Gilpin’s Essay on Prints (1768), in which he, like Irving, deploys one of the eighteenth century’s most weighted and elusive aesthetic concepts: the picturesque. Here, despite my earlier dismissal of national politics, they become useful as a gauge for Irving’s aesthetic ambitions. Before the Sketch-Book, the very word picturesque—an adjective charged with the grandeur of rolling hills and ancient ruins—belonged unequivocally to Great Britain. Plenty of twentieth-century criticism has explored this European pedigree, which Mavis Batey summarizes beautifully as “a peculiarly [End Page 2] British reaction to the Romantic attitudes sweeping Europe after Jean-Jacques Rousseau had confounded the age of reason by opening the floodgates of sensibility.”3 While acknowledging these origins, more recent scholarship has explored the picturesque’s American face, with John Conron even calling it “the first American aesthetic.”4 Such reevaluation demands a return to the Sketch-Book and Irving’s later works, since he shaped America’s artistic sensibilities largely as an importer of this ostensibly British vision. Irving’s deceptively complicated relationship with the picturesque further invites us to reappraise his intertextual relationship with two later commentators on that mode: Herman Melville and Henry James. Close reading confirms that Irving cleared much of the cosmopolitan ground more famously trod by his descendants.
And yet the stakes of such investigation dwarf even Irving’s literary stature, since the picturesque was surely nineteenth-century America’s most pervasive aesthetic ideal. Conron carefully traces the...